On Friday, May 8, Caxton Club brought filmmaker Astra Taylor to Knox. Preceded earlier in the week by a showing of two of her documentaries, Zizek! and Examined Life, Taylor’s lecture on social change and activism in film was less a straightforward speech as it was a biographical sketch of Taylor’s struggle with philosophy and activism.
She began with her intent to answer two questions commonly asked of her: when she became interested in philosophy and when she became a filmmaker. Philosophy, she said, is not something that one simply stumbles into, but stems from the reluctance to give up a child-like curiosity.
Indeed, she dates her interest in the subject back to her early childhood with the revelation that the meat people ate was made of animals.
Taylor was unschooled, a method of education where children are free to pursue their own interests instead of a set curriculum, until she was 13, and took up reading on the subject of animal rights, even printing her own newsletters on the topic, convinced that vegetarianism was the only way to live. It was not until she started public school that she began to regularly encounter meat-eaters, and her interest in philosophy only increased.
She could no longer simply rely on her knowledge that eating meat was wrong, because she was being asked to justify it, which led her to examine her beliefs — an experience which would later inspire the filming of Examined Life.
While philosophy was a naturally occurring part of her life, Taylor said that filmmaking happened to her by accident. She was already active in different causes when she and a friend offered to make a short film on infant malnutrition for a group in Africa. Taylor admitted that this first film was very much a learning experience, and because it was a project with a clear beginning and endpoint, her complete lack of experience and knowledge did not lead to total disaster.
Taylor’s other films have, in one way or another, often featured social concerns at their center, and despite having worked on critically recognized films like Persons of Interest, she still struggles with trying to link social injustice and meaningful change through film.
One student asked if it was not enough that her films have raised awareness, and Taylor admitted that “art can help us pay attention to things…that would otherwise leave us numb,” but said that, ultimately, “film isn’t activism.” Everyone today is raising awareness, she said. Ending on a sober note, she said the problem is that, despite all our awareness,